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The “Stinking Rose”: The Glories of Garlic

“Stinking rose.” “Camphor of the poor.” “Truffle of Provence.” Garlic has simultaneously been admired and reviled through the centuries. At times it has been perceived as a sinister force; at other times, as life-giving and protective.

The “stinking rose” is actually a member of the lily family, most likely native to Central Asia from where it traveled to the Mediterranean. Garlic belongs to the Allium genus, which includes onions, chives, and leeks. Its English name derives from the joining of two Anglo-Saxon words, gar, the word for spear (an allusion to the shape of its leaves) and leac, the word for herb. Allium, garlic’s Latin name, comes from the Celtic word for hot.

The ancient plant, which bears whitish lavender flowers and whose bulb grows entirely underground, must have captivated early civilizations. Propagating garlic required conscious human choice and effort, since its seeds were sterile. To cultivate the warm weather crop, farmers had to plant individual bulbs in the soil.

The builders of the Pyramids, according to Herodotus, subsisted on a diet of radishes, garlic, leeks, and onions. When their bosses cut their rations, the workers walked off the job, precipitating what garlic aficionado Lloyd Harris thinks may have been the earliest recorded strike. Ardent garlic eaters today, the Egyptians inherited their infatuation. The “garlic and onion” eaters, as the Romans called them, may have fancied a garlic and oil sauce that is the ancestor of the aioli of Provence.

Garlic remains have been unearthed from the tomb of King Tutankhamen. The Egyptians treated garlic as a holy object, swearing oaths on it and offering the bulb to the gods. The country’s priests banned all who smelled of garlic from their temples.

The herb was also prized for its medicinal and restorative properties. In preparing their mummies, Egyptians used garlic to prevent bodies from decaying, early proof of its effectiveness as an anti-fungal agent. Garlic fortifies remedies for headaches, bites, and heart ailments. The Egyptians even employed it as a diagnostic tool. To test for pregnancy, a clove was placed in the womb and left overnight. If the woman had a garlicky taste in her mouth the next day, she was assumed to be pregnant.

During their exile from Egypt, the Israelites fondly recalled the taste of the alliums: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and garlic.”

The Jews, who referred to themselves affectionately as “garlic eaters,” had contradictory feelings about it. Believing the spice to be erotically stimulating, an ancient Hebrew decree proscribed the eating of garlic during the Friday Sabbath evening. A bite of garlic, it was believed, promoted marital union.

Garlic was both elixir and taboo to the Greeks and Romans. “Now bolt down those cloves. Well primed with garlic you will have better mettle for the fight,” Aristophanes urged in his play, The Knights. Garlic, the Hellenes believed, invigorated the body and rejuvenated the spirit. Lethargy was a condition for which many ancient physicians prescribed the smelling of garlic.

Rooted in the lower depths of darkness, garlic was reputed to be a guardian against diabolical forces. In the Odyssey, the goda advised Ulysses to eat garlic to protect himself against the spells cast by the wily sorceress Circe. In more recent times, however, Greeks have employed garlic as a lucky charm. Midwives tied a clove around the neck of newborns to ward off danger. The Romans had similar ideas. Garlic was hung on doors to frighten away witches. Laborers and galley rowers ate it to make themselves stronger and more energetic. Gladiators took the herb to inspire boldness in the ring. Because of its sharp fragrance, the Romans also adopted garlic as an antiseptic. The “physic of the peasantry” cleansed the city’s fetid air.

Like the Greek and Roman nobles, the upper castes in India shunned garlic. Intent on achieving purity, the Brahmins feared that garlic, a popular taste among the lower classes, was polluting. Moreover, the smell of garlic was thought to be offensive to the gods. Therefore, Hindu priests and devout believers were expected to renounce it.

Garlic’s association with the body reinforced the taboo against its consumption, food scholar Frederick Simoons argues. Since its color resembled flesh and blood, garlic offended committed vegetarians among orthodox Hindus. In addition, the similarity of a head of garlic to a human head made for a distasteful image.

In the new religion of Islam, garlic’s potency reflected its sinister origins. When Satan stepped out of the Garden of the Eden, the story goes, garlic sprang up from where he placed his left foot, onions from where he placed his right. The Prophet Mohammad recommended garlic as an antidote for snake and scorpion bites: “Applied to the spot bitten by the viper or sting of scorpion it produces successful results.”

Still alluring and dangerous, garlic arrived in Europe with the Roman armies who occupied England. In the Medieval age, the herb, denigrated by the nobility as peasant grub, was excluded from the diet of knights. The supposed aphrodisiac was forbidden the celibate clergy. Its fragrance made Shakespeare squeamish: “[D]ear actors, eat no onions nor garlick, for we are to utter sweet breath,” Bottom says in  A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

If garlic could vanquish evil, why not sickness and disease? Garlic’s medicinal powers became the stuff of European folktales. In one story about the plague of 1726, four thieves robbing rotten corpses in Marseilles miraculously escaped unscathed. They were protected, the thieves said, because they breathed in a concoction of garlic steeped in vinegar. The solution became a popular home remedy. Myths were transformed into medical practice. During World War I, the British army treated wounds with garlic juice. The diabolical herb also retained its charm-like status. In Central and Eastern Europe, people hung garlands of garlic on their doors to keep vampires away.

Garlic found a more receptive home in southern European than in Anglo-Saxon kitchens. Garlic is “eaten with almost everything . . . by both Spaniards and Italians and the more Southern people,” the 17th century American gourmet John Evelyn wrote. “We absolutely forbid its entrance into our salleting [salads] by reason of its intolerable rankness.”

The Mediterraneans created entrancing blends of garlic and olive oil, from which mayonnaise, food writer Paula Wolfert suggests, was derived. Aioli, the “butter of Provence,” is a festive sauce of garlic, olive oil, and eggs, often enjoyed on New Year’s Eve. Greece’s skordalia is a pungent sauce traditionally made by pounding bread and garlic into a paste with a mortar and pestle. Olive oil is then drizzled in and beaten until the skordalia thickens. This traditional peasant dish is a wonderful accompaniment to slices of fried eggplant and zucchini.

We now know that garlic’s mystique had a certain scientific basis. A strong sulphur compound which contains alliin, an amino acid, is contained in the bulb. When the bulb is crushed or broken, scientists have learned, allin becomes allicin, the source of garlic’s smell and also an anti-bacterial and cholesterol reduction agent.

Old prejudices against the pungent spice have largely evaporated. Greeks, Italians, and other immigrants in the U.S. were once accused of being “garlic eaters.” Early Mediterranean restaurateurs muted the garlic in their dishes to avoid offending squeamish customers. Yet today, the more garlic, the better, many diners insist.


A Garlic Guide:

Bangkok Thai Dining (2016 P St., NW; 872-1144). Thai cooking emphasizes garlic. A good place to sample the flavor is at this Dupont Circle dining room, which is being operated by new owners. Try the Ga-Pow, a stir-fry of chicken, beef, seafood, vegetables (among the choices) that combines the flavors of garlic, chili, and basil.

Café Divan (1834 Wisc. Ave., NW; 338-1747, 48). Cacik, a dip of yogurt and chopped cucumbers accented with garlic, is one of the array of appetizers served at this Turkish restaurant.

Zorba’s Café (1620 20th St., NW; 387-5555. This Dupont Circle standby makes two classic spreads, tszatiki (a variation on the cacik) and the potato-based skordalia, both of which are garlic-laced.